110 Participate In Second Public Forum On Capital Projects

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Second Forum Focused Exclusively On Jones Library Demolition/Expansion

Eighty-three members of the public and 27 analysts and Town officials participated in a Zoom public forum on the proposed Jones Library demolition/expansion project on March 3 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. 

A recording of the session will be posted eventually on the Town’s YouTube Channel

All Jones Trustees and most Town Councilors participated. In addition, a sizable group of analysts and experts who are central to the proposed project’s development were on hand to answer questions. They included: Tony Hsiao and Jim Alexander from Finegold Alexander Architects (the lead architects for the project); Aelan Tierny from Kuhn Riddle Architects; Ken Guyette, Director of Project Management Services with Colliers Project Management; Doug Kelleher, a consultant on historic tax credits; Kent Faerber, the lead fundraiser for Friends of the Jones Library; Sarah Draper, a consultant on sustainability; and Sean Mangano, Town Finance Director. State Representative Mindy Domb joined the forum at 7:15 p.m.

According to Town Council President (District 2) Lynn Griesemer, the session was meant to follow a question and answer format with the several experts on hand to field the questions. (This will not be the case at the second forum about the library, on Saturday, March 6.) Nonetheless, many of the 19 members of the public who spoke used their time to offer testimonials in support of or opposition to the project without posing a question. After the fourth Jones Library employee spoke about the problems of the current building without posing a question, Griesemer asked the remaining five or so employees to submit their comments in writing so that there would be time for Town residents to pose their questions. Only a few questions were actually fielded by the expert panel but among those, Tony Hsiao’s account of how a project moves from schematic designs to technical drawings and a final bidding process (see below) lent considerable insight to a process that had thus far been far from transparent. For those with doubts about the viability of the project, several focused on whether it is consistent with local taxpayers’ priorities and asked why the Council has not been interested in polling Amherst residents to gauge their priorities. 

A Rough Transcript Of The Proceedings
Hank Allen, an employee of Jones Library and an IT specialist, testified that he runs a program that provides computer assistance to callers and especially to elderly Amherst residents. He noted that the wiring for IT in the Jones is not up to standard and the costs for doing a wiring upgrade on the old building will be much more expensive than upgrading with new construction. He said that the latest upgrade is out of date, much new work is needed, and he does not see a retrofit as tenable.

Lace (last name not provided) has been a Jones employee in the Circulation Department since 1996. She reported that the space does not allow her and her colleagues to do their jobs well.

Ken Rosenthal was the first participant to pose a question. He said that he has seen three sets of numbers on costs — one for the expansion and two for repairs. He noted that there was no mention of fundraising efforts or the use of CPAC money for the repair options, which made them seem more expensive than they might actually be. He asked if the $6M that the Trustees had pledged to raise was omitted intentionally from the repair estimates, and if so why? 

Kent Faerber responded: “All of the pledges we have received thus far are for the expansion. I can’t imagine anyone working with us now being willing to work to raise money for a repair! There is no one in the library who could tell you what we might be able to raise for a repair-only option because we did not include that in our feasibility study.”

Lynn Griesemer added that the library’s application for CPAC money was for the full expansion project only. In addition, the CPAC funds are contingent on the Town Council approving of the project. The Trustees could come back to CPAC with an application for funds to support repairs and renovation.

David Lithgow said that he is a strong supporter of the renovation/expansion and that he has personally pledged $25k for renovation/expansion, not repair. After reviewing the Financial Plan prepared for the Finance Committee, as well as the library’s presentation, he asked, “Would it not be irresponsible to turn down the $13M from the MBLC?” (Note: the panel did not respond and treated the question as rhetorical.)

Hilda Greenbaum stated that she is unhappy with the design of the gambrel roof, especially on the west side of the library, and wanted to know if this design is “cast in stone,” especially since the Massachusetts Historical commission has yet to weigh in on possible historical preservation mandates for the project. She emphasized strongly that she believes that the new school should be the Town’s top priority, and said that each of the projects should be put to an override vote so that the public has a say in what they would be raising taxes for. She said that the Council should not put the most popular project up for an override vote, but make its own decision — without giving the public an opportunity to vote — on an override for the least popular project.

Tony Hsiao responded: “We believe that the design is consistent with the existing library. While we’re still at an early stage of project development, and a lot more refinement will occur, we’re committed to the current roof design.”

Griesemer explained the question about why residents would not have an opportunity to vote on the library project this way: Our capital plan says that we don’t need to ask people to pay beyond their existing taxes for three of these projects. Hence, an override is not necessary for them. She also said that “we’ve been saving and we currently have a low level of debt.  But we can’t pull that off (no overrides) for the school.” She said that “we have other means of assessing public opinion besides a vote, but in the end it’s really a decision of the Council.”

Michael Chernoff said he hopes the Council is aware that the library is home to a number of programs that are currently badly served in the old building. He is on the board of the Literacy Project, which is currently run out of the Jewish Community of Amherst, and that he would love to see it in this new building but there was no mention of whether the Literacy Project would pay rent for two permanent classrooms.

Elissa Campbell spoke on behalf of the Burnett Gallery. “Some people are saying that the new design doesn’t include a [dedicated] space for the Burnett,” she said. She asked whether that’s true.

Austin Sarat, President of the Jones Board of Trustees, responded that there will be a space for the Burnett Gallery in the new library. 

Hsiao responded that there will be a space for the Burnett on the ground level, behind the large meeting room, and that it is just not labeled as such on the plans.

Sarah McKee, a former President of the Jones Board of Trustees, asked when the Council will make a decision on what will go out for a debt exclusion override? 

Griesemer responded that the Council has received a recommendation to put the school project out for a debt exclusion override, but that is only a recommendation. The library question will be put before the Council in April, she said, and whether it will be subject to a debt exclusion, or who gets credit for the CPA monies, will be decided then.

McKee continued that she has not seen an apples-to-apples comparison between the Plan A and Plan B for library repair and renovation, that is a comparison using the same assumptions about borrowing, interest rates, terms of repayment, and length of project for both expansion and repair. “When will an apples-to-apples comparison be available?” she asked.

Griesemer responded that “we already have an estimate for a repair-only from Kuhn Riddle.”

Aelan Tierny said that Kuhn Riddle did not do an apples-to-apples comparison and “that was not their intention.” Rather, their study only looked at the bare minimum that needs to be done for safe use of the building. 

Tom Davies asked, “What is the value of the facility at the end of the day — expansion vs. repair? What is the cumulative operational cost for the new vs. the repaired building?”

Sarat responded that “we haven’t done any analysis of value added but we can speak to cost savings….”

Hsiao responded that “anecdotally, our experience working with other libraries in other communities tells us that there is a positive bounce in the community… that the number of library patrons increase considerably… sometimes as much as four-fold after a major expansion.” 

Stephen Schreiber (Town Councilor, District 4) asked, “How would the appraised value change as a result of putting in $15M [for basic repairs] vs $36M [for the expansion]?”

Alexander responded that “of course if you put more money into the building the assessed value would increase, but we really haven’t looked at that. The real issue is the spin-off value that we mentioned earlier,” referring to the concept that more visitors would come into Town because of the library and would spend money at restaurants and shops while they are here. 

Sarat added that “we haven’t seen the study of the economic benefits of the new Holyoke library, but we’ve been told that [they] were quite substantial.” 

Robert Pam, Treasurer of the Board of Trustees, said that “we’ve covered operational costs in detail in our report to Town Council. Personnel costs are paid for by the Town. Energy costs are paid for by the library. It’s hard to determine the changes that we’ll have in operational costs. We anticipate an 8 percent reduction in energy costs.”

Griesemer then asked to share a question that she had received in writing, “What would it cost to just repair the building and move it closer to net zero?” She noted that she and the Council has received many questions.

Tierny responded that “we didn’t study that, so it’s hard to say… it would likely be expensive in a building of that age, and it might jeopardize the historic character of the building… but it’s hard to say without a study.” 

Alexander said he thought it would be very hard to make the existing building closer to net zero without ripping it apart. 

Kitty Axelson-Berry noted that about 25 percent of towns that are awarded grants by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioner (MBLC) choose to reject them. She reported that “the library’s most recent survey tells us that people love the Jones but what they really want [are things like] more computers, more free parking…” and commented that “a library designed for a Town of 51,000, when there are about 18,000 year-round residents and about 19,000 cardholders seems out of proportion.” She continued, “So where is that estimate of 51,000 users coming from?” She also said she wonders if this “flagship library,” as it is often called by proponents, is part of an effort to turn Amherst into a city, an urban metropolis, not just a Town known as a city. “We already have the college and university libraries in Town, and the Town is not currently supporting our branch libraries or developing any mobile library services,” she noted, and asked theoretically whether a large library is really a higher priority for the Town than other major efforts, such as spending money supporting more affordable housing, diversity, sustainability, small businesses. “Is this what we want to spend ‘other people’s money’ on? How in touch is this with people’s priorities?” Finally, she said, “We keep hearing about schematics, and plans not being final — but what does that really mean? What can be changed, what can’t be changed in schematics, in the plans? Can the plans to tear down the old interior walls and staircases be changed, for example?”

Griesemer said, “When and how does this get tied back to a concrete bid? What is the process from schematic plans to something concrete?”

Hsiao responded that “a schematic design is developing a scheme that fulfills the programmatic goals of the project and where some preliminary cost estimates are generated. After that, architects will flesh out more information about the project including structural issues, safety issues, in much more detail in the design development phase. Another series of estimates are done at that phase. The next phase is where we get the technical drawings to construct the building. And then there is a bidding phase, and then the construction itself. And as the drawings become more and more detailed, it becomes harder and more expensive to make changes.”

Griesemer pressed him, though, asking, “At what point do you go out to bid and what do you do to ensure that there will not be cost overruns?”

Alexander responded, “We do cost estimates at each phase. We don’t move from one phase to the next until we are sure that we are on budget. When it goes out to bid, we are going to make sure that there is cost certainty. We actively generate a lot of competition for the bid and that helps ensure that we get cost certainty.”

Griesemer asked, “What about those 51,000 [residents]?”

Sarat responded that “the Jones is one of the busiest libraries in the state. It draws people into the downtown. The library design emerged from an analysis of how the building is used now and how we expect it to be used for the next twenty years. We designed the library based on what we heard from patrons.”

Nancy Campbell noted that she completely supports the renovation/expansion, but wondered, “Why is it that a renovation that took place in 1993 — 28 years ago — needs to be demolished?  And what are people going to think of the decisions, made today, fifty years from now?”

Alexander responded that the planning of the 1928 library was very exciting. When the addition was made in 1993, “some of the issues that we are concerned with now, like accessibility and flexibility of space, were not big concerns. And we really can’t meet the sustainability goals with the existing footprint and retaining the old addition. It’s tough to look that far ahead, but given our goals of sustainability and flexibility, it allows us to think about the future in different ways.”

Sarat added, “We chose our architects well, [they are] architects with an outstanding track record in library design, and therefore we have reason to have faith in what they are doing. We got the right architects and the right design for what the Town needs.”

Rita Burke asked, “What will be the impact of the Jones project on other Town expenses?” and “Why do we have to tear down to build up, when other places in the world do so well with old buildings? And how did you arrive at the number 227,000 patrons [mentioned earlier] when there are only 19,000+ cardholders? What does that number represent? Who are we building this building for? Are we addressing the needs of taxpayers or of the people who we might draw to the Town to use the library? How does this support the actual needs of people who live here?”

Griesemer responded, “There are many ways to look at this. If there’s no debt exclusion override, there’s no impact on taxes. And if we bring revenue into Town because of this project, that benefits tax-paying entities [i.e. businesses] in Town, and that benefits taxpayers. So we come back to the question, ‘How do we assess value to the Town?’ and we decided that we haven’t studied that.”

Sarat assured the audience, “We’ll get you the explanation of exactly how the 227,000 gets calculated. But everyone who walks through the door is a patron.”

Alex LeFebvre, a Jones Trustee, said, “The 51,000 is our current service population. It includes people beyond Amherst.” According to LeFebvre, Amherst’s population is 37,819. “Thirty-five percent of our users are non-residents so we took thirty-five percent of the population and added it to the 37,000 to get our projected user base.” She noted that Hadley has 5,000 residents but 19,000 people walk through the library’s door.

Rudy Perkins commended the designers for a number of sustainability innovations, including using rooftop photovoltaics and eliminating fossil fuels. However, he said, he thinks sustainability could have been pushed a lot further. He reported that triple glazed windows have a payback of over 300 years. And he noted that the estimated costs of those windows seem excessive at $185/square feet of glass. “Where does that number come from, when GSA estimates are under $40/square feet?” he asked. He also wanted to know if we had studied whether we get more energy savings from skylights than we lose. “Perhaps we need to downsize the skylights, so we can get more photovoltaic volume on the roof…. We need to get these numbers right. The roof as proposed doesn’t maximize PV potential. We need to get this right, now, or we’re going to make faulty construction decisions,” he concluded.

Hsiao responded that “the level of information we have on sustainability at this stage is still schematic.”

Carol Gray, a former Jones Trustee, spoke next. She said that there should be a public survey to determine whether a large number of residents want this project to go forward, and cited outreach done by the library that indicated very little interest in expanding or even renovating the Jones. “The big interest,” she said, “was in renovations for the North Amherst library.” She cited the impending demolition of the Woodbury room as a distressing squandering of a patron’s gift to help pay for it. “And we’ve just paid off the 1993 addition and now we’re going to tear it down. We should at the very least poll the public so we know how the public feels.” She continued, “We’re facing an override for the school and there’s likely a lot of support for that. The library seems to be the least critical of the four major capital projects. You don’t know if the public wants this or not. This isn’t fair to the public. There was no interest at all in doing something like this when we did a survey for a long-range plan ten years ago. You can’t represent the interests of the public if you’re unwilling to survey where they stand.”

General Public Comment
The meeting was scheduled to run until 8:00 p.m. and at 8:15 Griesemer called for general public comments (vs. questions), with an eye toward wrapping up the proceedings.

Judith Luddy posed the following questions.

“Will we see similar presentations for the school and other capital projects?”

“Is the library the Council’s priority or is it just a matter of timing that the library is first?”

“Is there a way to prioritize the school and get started on that without having to do an override?”

Griesemer responded that this is the first major capital project to come before the Town since the police station. “Whether other capital projects will be treated with the same level of detail and public discussion — but none of them are ready for that yet — will be determined by Councils in the future, after the November elections. “The library has come up first because the grant is available now. The school will not be ready to talk about design and cost for a couple of years… The RFP [Request for a Proposal] for a project manager is just going out now. Typically a school project like this takes six or seven years. The Fire and DPW still need sites, and the Town Council is waiting on a report from the Town Manager about that.”

Anne Herrington said that she and her husband are regular patrons of the Jones library and, like the schools, both projects are vital to the Town’s future. “If we just do the minimal needed repairs,” she said, “the library will remain dysfunctional.” 

Clare Cook , Youth Services Coordinator at the Jones, spoke to the dysfunctionality of the current layout, including the fact that youth services are spread across three floors, and it is difficult to run youth services properly with the current layout.

Mia Cabana, the Head of Youth Services at the Jones, spoke about how the current configuration is not amenable for computer use or supervision of youth using computers.

At this point, Griesemer asked that the five or so other members of the library staff submit their comments in writing, so that more members of the general public have a chance to speak.

Marcy Sala emphasized the importance of the “spin-off effect,” how that will benefit the Town, and how important the library will be for downtown revitalization. “ If it’s financially viable, then I’m a strong supporter,” she said.

Griesemer announced that Finance Director Sean Mangano would demonstrate his financial modeling tool at 9 a.m. on Saturday, with a Zoom link on the Town website.

Another public forum on the Library will be held on Saturday, March 6 at 2 p.m. 

Zoom Links are: 

Sat 3/6 @ 9am-10:30am Four Building Projects Workshop and Feedback Session

Zoom link here.

Sat 3/6 @ 2pm-3pm Public Forum on Jones Library

Zoom link here.  

The meeting adjourned at 8:32 p.m.

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3 thoughts on “110 Participate In Second Public Forum On Capital Projects

  1. Although Council President Griesemer stated that, “If there’s no debt exclusion override, there’s no impact on taxes,” the Finance Committee report indicates that taxes will increase without an override if the Town borrows $90.4 million for the four capital projects. Last week, Craig Meadows calculated that owners of a $250,000 home now paying $5,455 a year would see their tax bill increase by between $181.76 and $244.17 each year. At the end of 10 years, they would be paying between $7,265 (+33%) and $7,895 (+46%). Over the same period, owners of $650,000 homes now paying $14,183 will see their tax bills increase by the same percentages to between $18,979 ( +$4,796) and $20,532 (+$6,349). Most important: Amherst owners of $350,000 homes who now pay $7,637 a year will see their taxes rise to between $12,717 (+$5,080 or 66%) and $14,477 (+ $6,840 or 89%) over a 20 year debt period.

    These figures assume that the $21.82 per thousand rate remains in force and that properties are not reassessed. If home sale prices increase, a reassessment will be triggered.

    Perhaps taxpayers are comfortable with these increases. Or perhaps they haven’t been presented with the information in a form that’s easy to understand.

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